Dystopian YA clutters the current landscape to such a degree that it’s hard to remember a time when such tales registered way below most people’s radar and were, in fact, a rarity. Maybe that accounts for how seldom you hear Knights of God evoked when talking about old television shows. Only broadcast one time ever in England, in 1987, and written by Richard Cooper, who also penned the excellent Codname: Icarus, Knights Of God is well-remembered by those who remember it at all.
Set in some not-too-far future, the United Kingdom has fallen in a civil war lead by Prior Mordrin (John Woodvine), whose religious order, the Knights of God, is one that puts power and force at the center of its spiritual philosophy, in contrast to Christianity, which Mordrin apparently views as weak and putting man in the slave position. Britain is now controlled by the Knights and peppered with educational camps for young dissidents, as well as a vibrant rebellion coming out of Wales.
The story centers on Gervaise (George Winter ), son of Welsh rebel Owen (Gareth Thomas, who we have previously seen on Star Maidens and Children of the Stones), who has some special purpose in the rebellion that no one, not even the Welsh leader Arthur (Patrick Troughton) will reveal to him. Gervaise manages to get caught by the Knights, to end up in a camp, to infiltrate the actual order, and to be sent out on a deadly mission. Accompanying him through most of this is Julia (Claire Parker), who though relegated to being a sidekick is still a positive capable girl character whose pluck you admire actually much more than anything the tortured Gervaise brings to the table.
Concurrently, viewers are treated to the inside politics of the order, mostly involving Mordrin and his second-in-command, the weaselly Brother Hugo (Julian Fellowes), whose plotting and backstabbing may work for the double purpose of unseating Mordrin from the leadership role and saving the Knights as the functioning government in power.
All the performances are quite good and hit just the appropriate level of dire melodrama — future Downton Abbey creator Fellowes is particularly awesome as sneering, fey villain Hugo, adding quite a level of homoeroticism to the plot — and the action is well-executed. While the show may not be groundbreaking in terms of plot — at a certain point you can see where this is all going and the general movement of it could take place in many eras and situations depending on your interest — it’s still a compelling adventure with a marvelously original landscape to unfold in, evoking the tone and quality of some classic kid’s chapter books of an earlier era, like the Tripod Trilogy, extremely well.
It’s hard to tell, though, where the show is coming from philosophically. It casts the royal family and the Church of England as the good guys in the battle, and Christianity, in particular, as a strong spiritual force for defense and justice. In other words, it embraces some conservative institutions while appearing to criticize a war-mongering government. On which side does Thatcherism fall in this scenario? It’s hard to tell, which ends up being one of the qualities that makes Knights Of God an enjoyable, one-of-a-kind oddity.